Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sermon: St. Bartholomew

24 August 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 22:24-30

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

St. Luke reminds us of an incident in Church history that is not something to be proud of. This has nothing to do with witches or the Inquisition, with crusades or burning heretics at the stake – but rather, something far more petty: the disciples were bickering about which one was the greatest.

This may seem shocking to us, as these men had spent three years with our Lord, listening to His preaching, observing His miracles, taking in His teaching, and now they just had the Eucharist with Him as He is preparing for His crucifixion, and these men, these founding members of the Church, these first bishops hand picked by our Lord, are carrying on like little children arguing over which one of them is best.

But this should not shock us at all, dear brothers and sisters. We do this all the time. We are constantly measuring ourselves up against others, our sinful flesh shamelessly trying to one-up everyone else, and barring that, trying to knock everyone else down a peg. We are interested in “who is the greatest.” This desire to identify the best (and if we can’t be the best, we want our countrymen to be the best) is why we have sports events like the Olympics. In the case of sports, there is much to be said of this competitive streak, but in God’s Kingdom, striving after a gold medal is nothing more than idolatry.

For “which of them should be considered the greatest”? That distinction belongs to our Lord alone.

In His loving rebuke of the disciples, our Lord points out that in God’s kingdom, true greatness is found in the least likely places – in weakness, in the lack of social rank, in lowly service. Our Lord punctuates this point by pointing to Himself: “For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.”

Our sinful flesh wants to be served, to be respected, to be loved. But true greatness, according to our blessed Lord and Servant, wants to serve, to respect, to love. That kind of selfless, sacrificial love for the sake of people in need and for the good of the Kingdom is where true greatness is to be found. And the greatest greatness is to be found on the cross – the least likely place of all: a place of apparent defeat and the seeming finality of death. On the cross, our Lord is the Servant of all servants. And this is His greatest triumph.

And our Lord, speaking to the Eleven, continues: “But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me.”

One of those first followers of our Lord was Bartholomew – also known as Nathaniel. He is certainly not the first name that comes to mind when we think of the “greatest” of the Lord’s apostles. He is certainly not mentioned with the prominence of Sts. Peter and Paul, of Matthew and John. As far as apostles go, we don’t even know much about him.

But the greatness of St. Bartholomew lies in that very fact. He devoted his life and death to the Lord and the kingdom. He is never called a “benefactor” nor did he ever lord over a great empire or enterprise. But Bartholomew did what he was instructed to do – to preach, to baptize, to administer the Lord’s Supper, to proclaim the good news to all nations.

Tradition teaches us that Bartholomew went as far as India preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. Some accounts report that he left a copy of Matthew’s Gospel – interesting as these reports claim the book was in Hebrew, rather than Greek – a point that many Bible scholars find to be quite plausible – as Matthew’s Gospel is the most “Jewish” of the four.

Tradition also tells us Bartholomew was martyred for the faith in what is today Armenia. It seems Bartholomew’s preaching converted the king, and the king’s brother was not pleased by this development. According to tradition, St. Bartholomew was tortured and crucified upside down in Armenia.

Interestingly, Armenia has an ancient Christian presence, a Christianity that has survived to this day – even the attempts of communism to snuff it out. But all the while Communists sought to destroy the Church, they struggled in vain, for our Lord promised Bartholomew, the other apostles, and us today: “I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me.”

And in this kingdom, greatness is not to be found in a golden crown and a jeweled throne, but rather in a crown of thorns and the blood-stained cross. In this kingdom, greatness is not something that can be proven by arguments and disputes, but rather is demonstrated by proclaiming Christ, the One who is truly great. In this kingdom, greatness is not to be found in great personal strength and prowess, but rather in weakness and in deference to the One whose victory on the cross won for us eternal life.

St. Bartholomew’s greatness was not to be found in himself, but in his service. For the servant does not call attention to himself, but rather makes his master look good. A good servant stands in the shadows as his labor serves to glorify his master. This is what St. Bartholomew did. His greatness doesn’t consist in his missionary trip to India, but rather in the book he brought. His greatness is not in his martyr’s death, but in his Master’s martyr’s death. St. Bartholomew was not a great man because he preached, rather he preached the greatness of the Man and God he served.

Dear friends, we are not great. But our master is. And in serving Him, we can and do partake in His greatness. For listen again to our Lord’s words about the kingdom the Father bestows on the Son, and that same kingdom the Son bestows on us: “I bestow on you a kingdom… that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

Our greatness, our destiny to rule, our sitting on thrones is rooted in the Lord, in His Kingdom, and in His holy humble meal at His table, a meal of simple bread and wine that is at the same time the greatest eternal feast of all consisting of His almighty body and all-availing blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of all our sins, for life and salvation, for eternal communion with Him, enabling us to partake of His kingdom and His greatness – just as St. Bartholomew and all the saints and martyrs have done, and just as saints and martyrs yet unborn will do until our Lord returns in glory.

And while this passage begins with an embarrassing squabble about who is greatest, it concludes with our Lord promising greatness to all of us who reside in His kingdom – a greatness we have neither earned nor deserved, but one earned for us by our Humble Master who is also our Great Servant. For as St. Paul reminds us anew: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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